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U.S. 'actively considering' role in Liberia

Two residents flee Monrovia last week.
Two residents flee Monrovia last week.

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The one remaining medical facility in Liberia's capital is struggling to keep up with the casualties of war. CNN's Jeff Koinange reports.
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President Bush is urging Liberian President Charles Taylor to step down for the good of his people.
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LIBERIA FACTS

Area: 43,000 square miles (111,369 square kilometers); a little larger than Ohio

Capital: Monrovia (named for U.S. President James Monroe)

Population (2002 estimate): 3.3 million (95 percent indigenous people; 5 percent descendants of freed American slaves)

Languages: English is official; 16 indigenous

Literacy: 15 percent

Life expectancy: 51.4 years

Economy: Primarily agricultural (rubber, coffee, cocoa, sugarcane) with some mining (iron, diamonds, gold, tin)

Unemployment: 70 percent

Founded: 1822 by the American Colonization Society, whose goal was to resettle freed slaves in Africa (neighboring Sierra Leone has similar origins as a British colony for freed slaves). Liberia means "land of the free."

Independence: 1847 when the ACS gave up control.

Conflict history: Country was governed by descendants of freed American slaves for 133 years until 1980 when Samuel Doe of the Krahn ethnic group seized power in a coup. Years of chaos followed. In 1989, Charles Taylor, a descendant of the freed slave ruling class, led a revolt that ultimately resulted in Doe's execution. Civil war ensued among several factions, during which an estimated 200,000 people died. The United Nations, United States, African Union and Economic Community of West African States mediated a peace of sorts in 1996. Taylor gained power in a special election in 1997. He has been indicted by a U.N. court investigating war crimes in Sierra Leone. Since 2000 his regime has been under siege by rebels who say they want a return to democracy.

Sources: U.S. State Department, U.S. CIA World Factbook.

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Under pressure from the United Nations and the international community, the United States is "actively considering" how to support an international peacekeeping force in war-torn Liberia, the State Department said Monday.

"The situation in Liberia is of major concern to us," State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said. "We have been actively discussing how we can best support international efforts to help Liberia return to peace and the rule of law."

Boucher's comments followed an appeal Saturday by U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan for the Security Council to send a multinational force to Liberia "to prevent a major humanitarian tragedy." (Full story)

The appeal came amid intense fighting between the government of President Charles Taylor and rebel forces in violation of a June 17 cease-fire.

Annan said a member of the Security Council should lead the force, and U.S. and African leaders have called for the United States to lead the force because of its long ties to Liberia, a nation founded by freed American slaves in 1822.

Last week's sudden attempt by rebels to capture the capital Monrovia left hundreds of people dead before Taylor's forces battled the insurgents back beyond the city limits. (Full story)

Taylor, a former warlord who has been indicted by an international court on charges of perpetrating war crimes in neighboring Sierra Leone, has broken dozens of peace accords in 14 years of war-making during which hundreds of thousands have died.

Civil war in Liberia killed 200,000 people from 1989 to 1996 before Taylor emerged as the dominant faction leader, going on to win elections in 1997.

The current insurgency has been going on three years. Taylor remains under intense pressure, with two rebel factions controlling 60 percent of the country and President Bush urging him to step down.

"President Taylor needs to step down so that his country can be spared further bloodshed," Bush said Thursday.

In a radio address Friday, Taylor appealed to "the international community most specifically the United States to do everything within its power to help Liberia and Liberians out of this mess."

Thousands demonstrated Friday outside the U.S. Embassy in Monrovia, urging the United States to stop the conflict. Two rocket-propelled grenades hit an embassy annex Wednesday, killing several Liberians, a State Department official said.

Meanwhile, health workers were trying to deal with growing hunger and disease in Monrovia.

With the city's food supplies tied up in the port, where much of the fighting took place last week, rice, flour and other staples had tripled in price -- if they could be found at all.

Cholera spread in the city of 1.5 million, swelled by hundreds of thousands of refugees living in schoolyards, the national soccer stadium and the once grand Masonic temple. (Full story)

A senior State Department official said the Bush administration was "looking at beefing up security to protect personnel" still in the country.

Although the U.S. Embassy was under "ordered departure," some essential staff members remain.

Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld said the administration was "looking at a range of options."

Rumsfeld pointed to countries like Nigeria, Sierra Leone and Ghana, where the U.S. deployed small units for training purposes.

"Those are things that are being sorted out by the Department of State and the White House at the present time," he said, adding that Bush would make the final decision.

Boucher said the administration was weighing how to protect Americans and U.S. diplomats still in the country, while "looking more broadly at the overall situation to see what contribution we could make. ..."

"It is important to us to be able to keep working with the parties and try to do what we can diplomatically to calm the situation, get back to implementation of the agreements of the cease-fire," Boucher said.

Boucher called on both parties to cooperate with a "joint verification team" arriving in Liberia to oversee the cease-fire between the government and rebel forces, and said the United States intended to provide a member of the team.

CNN State Department Producer Elise Labott contributed to this story.


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